MoJo Author Feeds: Tim McDonnell | Mother Jones Mother Jones logo en Here's the Next Big Story on Climate Change <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p>Last December, the climate summit in Paris offered journalists an unprecedented opportunity to reframe the global warming story. Climate reporting used to rest on the tacit understanding that the problem is overwhelming and intractable. That no longer rings true. While we have a better understanding than ever of the potential calamity in store, we finally have a clear vision of a path forward&mdash;and momentum for actually getting there.</p> <p>To that end, Paris was a turning point for me personally, too: It was the end of the beginning of my career as an environmental journalist. This week I'm leaving <em>Mother Jones</em> after five years covering climate and other green stories. Paris underscored that it's past time for me to look beyond the borders of the United States. That's why, this fall, I'm going to undertake a <a href="" target="_blank">Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship</a>. For at least nine months, I'll move between Kenya, Uganda, and Nigeria to document how climate change is affecting food security.</p> <p>I see agriculture in Africa as one of the most important yet underreported stories about climate change today. It's a fascinating intersection of science, politics, technology, culture, and all the other things that make climate such a rich vein of reporting. At that intersection, the scale of the challenge posed by global warming is matched only by the scale of opportunity to innovate and adapt. There are countless stories waiting to be told, featuring a brilliant and diverse cast of scientists, entrepreneurs, politicians, farmers, families, and more.</p> <p>East Africa is already the hungriest place on Earth: One in every three people live without sufficient access to nutritious food, <a href="" target="_blank">according to the United Nations</a>. Crop yields in the region are the lowest on the planet. African farms have one-tenth the productivity of Western farms on average, and sub-Saharan Africa is the <a href="" target="_blank">only place</a> on the planet where per capita food production is actually falling.</p> <p>Now, climate change threatens to compound those problems by raising temperatures and disrupting the seasonal rains on which many farmers depend. An <a href="" target="_blank">index</a> produced by the University of Notre Dame ranks 180 of the world's countries based on their vulnerability to climate change impacts (No. 1, New Zealand, is the least vulnerable; the United States is ranked No. 11). The best-ranked mainland African country is South Africa, down at No. 84; Nigeria, Kenya, and Uganda rank at No. 147, No. 154, and No. 160, respectively.<strong> </strong>In other words, these are among the places that will be hit hardest by climate change. More often than not, the agricultural sector will experience some of the worst impacts. <a href="" target="_blank">Emerging research indicates</a> that climate change could drive down yields of staples such as rice, wheat, and maize 20 percent by 2050. Worsening and widespread drought could shorten the growing season in some places by up to <a href="" target="_blank">40 percent</a>.</p> <p>This isn't just a matter of putting food on the table. Agricultural productivity also lies at the root of broader economic development, since farming is Africa's No. 1 form of employment. So, even when hunger isn't an issue, per se, lost agricultural productivity can stymie rural communities' efforts to get the money they need for roads, schools, clinics, and other necessities. "We only produce enough to eat," lamented Amelia Tonito, a farmer I met recently in Mozambique. "We'd like to produce enough to eat <em>and</em> to sell." More food means more money in more pockets; the process of alleviating poverty starts on farms.</p> <p>The story goes beyond money. Hunger, increased water scarcity, and mass migrations sparked by natural-resource depletion can <a href="" target="_blank">amplify the risk of conflict</a>. Al-Shabaab in Kenya and <a href="" target="_blank">Boko Haram in Nigeria</a> have both drawn strength from drought-related hunger.</p> <p>This is also a story about new applications for technology at the dawn of Africa's digital age. It's a story about gender&mdash;most African farmers are women&mdash;and the struggle to empower marginalized sectors of society. It's about globalization and the growth of corporate power, as large-scale land investors from Wall Street to Dubai to Shanghai see a potential windfall in turning East and West Africa into a global breadbasket. Such interventions could boost rural economies&mdash;or disenfranchise small-scale farmers and further degrade the landscape.</p> <p>Of course, all the data points I've just mentioned are only that: cold, lifeless data. They work as an entry point for those of us who are thousands of miles away from Africa. But they don't tell a story, and they won't lead to action. They won't help Amelia Tonito improve her income. My hope is my coverage of this story will help provide the depth of understanding that is a prerequisite for holding public and corporate officials accountable, so that the aspirations of the Paris Agreement can start to come to fruition.</p> <p>I've loved my time at <em>Mother Jones</em> and I'm truly at a loss to express my gratitude to my editors for the experiences they have afforded me. I've seen the devastating impacts of global warming, from the <a href="" target="_blank">vanishing Louisiana coastline</a> to the <a href="" target="_blank">smoldering wreckage of Breezy Point, Queens</a>, after Superstorm Sandy. And I've seen the cost of our fossil fuel addiction, from the <a href="" target="_blank">dystopian fracking fields of North Dakota</a> to <a href="" target="_blank">Germany's yawning open-pit coal mines</a>. But I've also seen the fortitude of the <a href="" target="_blank">young Arizonans who spent weeks sweating in the woods</a> to protect their community from wildfires. And I've seen the compassion of a caretaker who, in the aftermath of&nbsp;Sandy, <a href="" target="_blank">stayed with her elderly patient</a> on the top floor of a Lower East Side high-rise with no electricity or running water.</p> <p>Encounters like these are what draw me to climate change as a beat. The story is just getting started.</p></body></html> Environment Climate Change Climate Desk Energy Food International Science Thu, 30 Jun 2016 18:54:18 +0000 Tim McDonnell 307771 at A Federal Judge Just Struck Down Obama's Fracking Regulations <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p>A major push by the Obama administration to curb the environmental impacts of fracking suffered a severe blow Wednesday evening, when a federal judge in Wyoming ruled that the proposed regulations overstepped the government's authority. The decision could mean that President Barack Obama will leave office without delivering on one of environmentalists' biggest demands: Clamping down on air and water pollution from the chemicals used in fracking, a controversial oil and gas drilling technique that has driven the country's oil and gas boom during Obama's tenure.</p> <p>The Interior Department had <a href="" target="_blank">sought</a> to require inspections of fracked oil and gas wells on public land, and also to require that companies publicly disclose the chemicals used in those wells. (Fracking entails injecting a high-pressure cocktail of water, sand, and chemicals into underground shale formations.) The proposal was contested by the state of Wyoming, a major producer of natural gas, and by a group of oil industry trade groups.<strong> </strong>According to the <a href="" target="_blank">ruling</a> by&nbsp;Judge Scott Skavdahl, an Obama appointee, "Congress has not delegated to the Department of Interior the authority to regulate hydraulic fracturing. The [Bureau of Land Management]'s effort to do so through the Fracking Rule is in excess of its statutory authority and contrary to law."</p> <p>Only about 10 percent of the nation's fracking operations take place on federal land, <a href="" target="_blank">according to the <em>New York Times</em></a>&mdash;the rest happens on state, local, or private land that would not have been subject to the federal regulations. Still, the rules would have given Obama a significant environmental victory and would help counter the argument put forth by many activists that <a href="" target="_blank">his legacy on climate change has been muddied by the fracking boom</a>.</p> <p>Another regulation that could restrict fracking, focused on methane emissions from oil and gas wells, was <a href="" target="_blank">released</a> by the Environmental Protection Agency in May and is <a href="" target="_blank">likely to face a similar slate of litigation</a> that could unfold after Obama leaves office.</p> <p>In any case, the ruling "is not the final word," as the <em>Times</em> explains:</p> <blockquote> <p>While the regulation will be temporarily halted, the federal Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit is also reviewing the rule. Obama administration officials characterized Judge Skavdahl's ruling as a delay, and said they were waiting for the decision by the appeals court.</p> <p>"It's unfortunate that implementation of the rule continues to be delayed, because it prevents regulators from using 21st century standards to ensure that oil and gas operations are conducted safely and responsibly on public and tribal lands," the Interior Department said in a statement from the agency's spokeswoman, Jessica Kershaw.</p> </blockquote></body></html> Environment Climate Change Climate Desk Energy Top Stories Infrastructure Thu, 23 Jun 2016 17:56:39 +0000 Tim McDonnell 307426 at California Might Close Its Last Nuclear Plant <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p>California's biggest electric utility announced a <a href="" target="_blank">plan</a> on Tuesday to shut down the state's last remaining nuclear power plant within the next decade. The plant, Diablo Canyon, has been controversial for decades and resurfaced in the news over the last few months as Pacific Gas &amp; Electric approached a deadline to renew, or not, the plant's operating license.</p> <p>"California's new energy policies will significantly reduce the need for Diablo Canyon's electricity output," PG&amp;E said in a statement, pointing to the state's massive gains in energy efficiency and renewable energy from solar and wind.</p> <p>The most significant part of the plan is that it promises to replace Diablo Canyon with a "cost-effective, greenhouse gas free portfolio of energy efficiency, renewables and energy storage." As I <a href="" target="_blank">reported in February</a>, some environmentalists were concerned that closing the plant could actually increase the state's carbon footprint, if it were replaced by natural gas plants, as has happened elsewhere in the country when nuclear plants were shut down:</p> <blockquote> <p>As the global campaign against climate change has gathered steam in recent years, old controversies surrounding nuclear energy have been re-ignited. For all their supposed faults&mdash;radioactive waste, links to the Cold War arms race, the specter of a catastrophic meltdown&mdash;nuclear plants have the benefit of producing huge amounts of electricity with zero greenhouse gas emissions&hellip;</p> <p>A recent analysis by the International Energy Agency found that in order for the world to meet the global warming limit <a href="" target="_blank">enshrined in the Paris climate agreement</a> in December, nuclear's share of global energy production will need to grow from around <a href="" target="_blank">11 percent in 2013 to 16 percent by 2030</a>. (The share from coal, meanwhile, needs to shrink from 41 percent to 19 percent, and wind needs to grow from 3 percent to 11 percent.)</p> </blockquote> <p>Michael Shellenberger, a leading voice in California's pro-nuclear movement, estimated in February that closing Diablo Canyon "would not only shave off one-fifth of the state's zero-carbon energy, but potentially increase the state's emissions by an amount equivalent to putting 2 million cars on the road per year." That estimate presupposed that the plant would be replaced by natural gas. The plan announced today&mdash;assuming it's actually feasible&mdash;appears to remedy that concern. In a <a href="" target="_blank">statement</a>, Shellenberger's group, Environmental Progress, said the plan is destined to "fail" because the notion that the plant can be replaced without increasing greenhouse gas emissions is "a big lie."</p> <p>In any case, the plant won't be closing overnight. Over the next few years we should be able to watch an interesting case testing whether it's possible to take nuclear power offline without worsening climate change.</p> <p><em>This post has been updated.</em></p></body></html> Environment Climate Change Climate Desk Energy Tue, 21 Jun 2016 17:48:24 +0000 Tim McDonnell 307211 at Even George W. Bush's Environment Chief Thinks Trump's Energy Plan Is Bonkers <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p>A couple<strong> </strong>of weeks ago, Donald Trump took a stage in Bismarck, North Dakota, and laid out his vision for addressing climate change and energy issues should he win the White House. It was <a href="" target="_blank">about what you might expect</a> from a candidate who has previously claimed that global warming is a hoax invented by Chinese bureaucrats to disadvantage US manufacturers. He railed against the <a href="" target="_blank">historic global agreement on climate change</a> struck in Paris last year, called President Barack Obama's cornerstone climate policy "stupid," and said that his administration "will focus on real environmental challenges, not the phony ones we've been looking at." Though after he fulfills his promise to dismantle <a href="" target="_blank">the "Department of Environmental,"</a><strong> </strong>it is hard to imagine how he would make that happen.</p> <p>The <em>Washington Post </em><a href="" target="_blank">called</a> Trump's proposals "dangerous and nonsensical," and Christine Todd Whitman, a former Republican governor of New Jersey and head of the Environmental Protection Agency during George W. Bush's first term, agreed. Whitman has always been a bit of a nonconformist among conservatives on climate change: She <a href="" target="_blank">pushed hard</a> for Bush to let the United States join the Kyoto Protocol, the last significant stab at global climate action prior to Paris, and she infamously told the <em>Post </em>that she <a href="" target="_blank">left the EPA</a> after coming under intense pressure from then-Vice President Dick Cheney to implement lax regulations on emissions from coal-fired power plants.&nbsp;</p> <p>These days, she co-chairs the <a href="" target="_blank">CASEnergy Coalition</a>, an educational coalition that promotes the use of nuclear power as a solution to climate change. In earlier, more innocent days of the Republican primary race, she endorsed Ohio Gov. John Kasich. Now she "will not vote for Trump," but is on the fence about Hillary Clinton. The Democratic nominee, she said, "has real flaws, but hers are more within the normal parameters we're used to. Trump's are way outside, as far as I'm concerned."</p> <p>I had a chat with Gov. Whitman about the threat Trump's candidacy poses to Obama's climate legacy and why his energy "plan" makes no sense:</p> <p><strong>Climate Desk: </strong>What did you make of Trump&rsquo;s energy speech in North Dakota?</p> <p><strong>Christine Whitman:</strong> Not surprised, but disappointed. I don't think he has a full grasp, not surprisingly, of the issues. He's taking moves that I believe are totally contrary to the health and well-being of the country and the citizens, when you talk about walking away from [the Paris Agreement], when you talk about having a need to restart coal plants. He should know that the reason a lot of the coal plants are shutting down now has nothing to do with environmental regulations and everything to do with economics and the low price of natural gas, which he also wants to encourage. So those two things run counter to one another in a way. He's talking about rolling back the clock, which I think is very dangerous.</p> <p><strong>CD: </strong>Trump&rsquo;s comments on climate and energy might seem radical, but aren't they really just a more extreme, less articulate version of sentiments we hear from Mitch McConnell and other prominent Republicans frequently: Climate change isn't a threat, we need to save coal and the fossil fuel industry, etc.?</p> <p><strong>CW: </strong>Well, first of all, environmental protection is a Republican issue. The first president to set aside public land was Lincoln. It was Nixon who established, with a Democratic Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency. This is in our DNA. Conservation is inherently conservative, and it should be something that we embrace. So I would like to see Republicans understand this and also recognize facts. You can have economic growth and a clean and green environment. We've done it. It's not a zero-sum game. They've just got to get off this attitude that you can't have them both at the same time.</p> <p>[During the Nixon era] the public said, "We don't like being told not to go outside from 10 to 4 because of bad air quality," and "We don't like seeing our land turned into a garbage dump." That's what drove Congress and the president to actually take action. To walk away from [environmental issues] is a very dangerous political move, if nothing else, because the public still doesn't want dirty air and dirty water and trashed land.</p> <p>You really don&rsquo;t have any credible scientists who say that climate change isn't occurring, and you don't have any credible scientists who say humans don't play a role. If you want to ignore it, you do so at your peril.</p> <p><strong>CD: </strong>And yet, here we are with a Republican nominee for president who is a climate change denier. What do you think the effect of Trump's candidacy on Obama's climate legacy will be? Is he lending a sense of urgency to formally finalize the Paris Agreement?</p> <p><strong>CW: </strong>Well, I hope he's not representative of the party as a whole. I mean, he's off the charts as far as what you can expect him to do or say. He is scaring other countries, and that's pushing a desire to get [the Paris Agreement] done while we can&mdash;and make it that much harder for him to roll back. He says he's going to roll back a lot of things, but he can't do it. He's not an emperor, but he doesn't seem to get it. He is going to try to push the powers of the presidency, the boundaries. He doesn't seem to understand the Constitution or really care much about it.</p> <p>But still, some of those who oppose taking dramatic action [on climate change] in India or in China are saying, "Wait a minute, the United States is going to back out. Do we still want to be a part of this?" So it's making it much more difficult and confusing for people.</p> <p><strong>CD: </strong>What are you hoping to see from the candidates on climate change as the election moves forward?</p> <p><strong>CW: </strong>Truth? I hope they don't get into it. [An election] is the worst time to discuss serious policy, because people politicize everything. I really don't want to see a deep dive into climate change or into these issues, other than a recognition that they exist, that they're important, and that we have to take action. Right now, on every issue, the extremes are pushing the agendas.</p> <p>What I'm really scared about is that people get dug in too far. And they'll have to move further to the left, further to the right, the lines will get harder, and then once someone is elected there will be an inability to move back to the center or to really get things done. We all know that people will say things during campaigns that they don't really mean<strong>. </strong>Or they'll be willing, when they come into office, to look at what the reality is. So when they get in, if they've really painted themselves into a corner, then we're not going to be able to have the kind of discussion that we need to get these issues solved.</p></body></html> Environment Interview 2016 Elections Climate Change Climate Desk Donald Trump Energy Thu, 09 Jun 2016 10:00:20 +0000 Tim McDonnell 305996 at Environmentalists Could Put Sanders on Top in California Primary <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p>California's Democratic presidential primary on Tuesday is a make-or-break moment for Sen. Bernie Sanders, who needs a big win in the state to take anything resembling momentum to the Democratic convention in July. His rival, Hillary Clinton, has a narrow edge, leading him by about two points in the <a href="" target="_blank">RealClearPolitics polling average</a> as of Monday morning.</p> <p>But in addition to its role in the delegate math&mdash;after Tuesday, Clinton will likely have secured a majority of the delegates, when unbound superdelegates are factored in&mdash;California's Democratic primary could also be a referendum on how voters in the state want to deal with climate change. California is home to some of the country's most progressive climate policies, strong industries for both fossil fuels and renewable energy, and high vulnerability to some impacts of climate change, such as droughts like the one that is still ravaging the state (Donald Trump's <a href="" target="_blank">opinion to the contrary</a> notwithstanding). According to Yale University polling, <a href="" target="_blank">62 percent</a> of Californians are worried about global warming, compared with a national average of 52 percent. A recent poll of California voters in both parties <a href="" target="_blank">found that clean air and water ranked</a> among the top issues in the presidential election.</p> <p>In other words, California is uniquely suited to be a prime proving ground for differences between Clinton's and Sanders' approaches to issues like fracking and nuclear power.</p> <p>"I think it's fair to say overall that California is known nationwide as being an environmental leader," said Michelle Chan, vice president of programs at Friends of the Earth in California. "And it's very much part of our identity as Californians: Our environmental values are part and parcel of how we identify politically."</p> <p>Both candidates appear to be acutely aware of this. Last week, they courted the environmentalist vote in California. Sanders <a href="" target="_blank">focused on climate change</a> at a series of rallies, lambasting Trump as a "climate change denier" and calling on Clinton to up her game by coming out in favor of a tax on carbon emissions. Meanwhile, Clinton published an <a href="" target="_blank">editorial</a> in the San Jose <em>Mercury News </em>that focused on wilderness conservation.</p> <p>Environmental groups are split between the Democratic candidates. Friends of the Earth <a href="" target="_blank">endorsed Sanders</a> nearly a year ago, and the Vermont senator also has the <a href="" target="_blank">support of founder Bill McKibben.</a> ( itself has not yet made an endorsement.) The political arms of the <a href="" target="_blank">League of Conservation Voters</a> and the <a href="" target="_blank">Natural Resources Defense Council</a> both support Clinton, as does Gov. Jerry Brown, who has been a forceful advocate for action on climate change. The Sierra Club and Greenpeace<strong> </strong>remain on the sidelines.</p> <p>Needless to say, on climate change Clinton and Sanders have much more in common with one another than either does with Trump, who has called it a hoax and vowed to <a href="" target="_blank">dismantle the global agreement</a> on climate struck in Paris last year. In general, Clinton has stayed fairly close to President Barack Obama's "all of the above" script on energy resources&mdash;that is, continuing some level of fossil fuel production in addition to promoting more climate-friendly sources like wind and solar. Sanders, meanwhile, has advocated a plan that hews closer to environmentalists' dream scenario, with all fossil fuels left in the ground.</p> <p>They differ more sharply on fracking. The controversial method of oil and gas extraction, which involves blasting underground shale formations with high-pressure water, sand, and chemicals, is perhaps more relevant to Golden State voters than to residents of any other state. Fracking in California has been in the news a lot recently: The industry has drawn criticism for its <a href="" target="_blank">high use of water during the drought</a>, and the natural gas industry was blamed for a <a href="" target="_blank">massive methane leak</a> at a storage facility near Los Angeles in January that drew comparisons to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Just last week, <a href="" target="_blank">environmentalists were incensed</a> by a new report from the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management that found that offshore fracking in the Pacific is unlikely to have a "significant" impact on the environment.</p> <p>Sanders' position is cut-and-dried: a nationwide ban on fracking. Clinton's position is more nuanced. In a March Democratic debate, <a href="" target="_blank">she said her administration</a> would place so many new restrictions on natural gas production that "by the time we get through all of my conditions, I do not think there will be many places in America where fracking will continue to take place." Still, as secretary of state, Clinton <a href="" target="_blank">helped export American fracking technology</a> to places like <a href="" target="_blank">China</a> and Eastern Europe. And <a href="" target="_blank">she has argued</a>&mdash;in line with the Obama administration&mdash;that although pollution from fracking is insufficiently regulated, it is a preferable alternative to coal and so can be a "bridge" to a less carbon-intensive energy system. There's <a href="" target="_blank">plenty of evidence</a> that Clinton could be right, and that a fracking ban could actually backfire by leading the country to depend more on coal. But that might not matter much to California voters, a (slim) majority of whom oppose fracking, according to a <a href="" target="_blank">2013 Public Policy Institute of California poll</a>.</p> <p>In other words, Sanders' message on fracking has the potential to resonate with California Democrats.</p> <p>The same could be said of nuclear power, which has also resurfaced in the California news as regulators <a href="" target="_blank">decide whether to shutter</a> Diablo Canyon, the state's last nuclear power plant. As with fracking, Clinton sees <a href="" target="_blank">nuclear power as key</a> to the clean-energy transition, while Sanders wants to shut down nuclear power completely. Neither candidate has weighed in on Diablo Canyon specifically, but in a statement to <em>Mother Jones</em>, a Sanders campaign spokesperson said, "We cannot allow the ailing nuclear industry to endanger the lives of millions of people&nbsp;just to squeeze out every last cent from its failing infrastructure."</p> <p>Regardless of which Democrat wins the primary, Trump's positions on climate change are the polar opposite. So the big question is whether Sanders' environmentalist supporters in California would be willing to support Clinton if she wins the nomination, rather than risk putting a climate change denier in the White House. Chan, from Friends of the Earth, said that for many environmentalists, Clinton may be an unsavory choice, but she is still one whom many in California could eventually rally behind.</p> <p>"We have certainly seen Sanders' entry in the campaign pull her to more progressive positions," she said. "[It's] fair to say she's preferable to Trump."</p></body></html> Environment 2016 Elections Climate Change Climate Desk Energy Hillary Clinton Mon, 06 Jun 2016 15:13:14 +0000 Tim McDonnell 305601 at Trump Wants to "Renegotiate" the Paris Climate Deal <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p>If elected president, Donald Trump would pull the United States out of the commitments it made <a href="" target="_blank">recently in Paris to fight climate change</a>, according to <a href=";channelName=politicsNews" target="_blank">a new interview with <em>Reuters</em></a>&mdash;a move that could deal a fatal blow to the landmark agreement.</p> <blockquote> <p>"I will be looking at that very, very seriously, and at a minimum I will be renegotiating those agreements, at a minimum. And at a maximum I may do something else," the New York real estate mogul said in an interview with Reuters.</p> <p>"But those agreements are one-sided agreements and they are bad for the United States."</p> <p>Trump said he did not believe China, the world's top emitter of the carbon dioxide gas that many scientists believe is contributing to global climate change, would adhere to its pledge under the Paris deal.</p> </blockquote> <p>The deal, which the Obama administration plans to formally join by the end of the year, aims to limit global warming to "well below" 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. Needless to say, the plan would crumble if the US&mdash;the world's second-biggest carbon dioxide emitter after China&mdash;were to back out.</p> <p>Trump's criticism of China, although commonplace among Republican climate change deniers, is debatable. Chinese diplomats <a href="" target="_blank">worked closely with White House officials</a> in developing the Paris Agreement. Chinese investment in clean energy technology <a href="" target="_blank">vastly outpaces</a> that of the US, and some energy analysts think China could actually be on track to <a href="" target="_blank">outperform</a> the climate targets it agreed to in Paris.</p> <p>Still, it could be a noteworthy concession from Trump that he wants to "renegotiate," rather than abandon the plan completely. He's previously said global warming "<a href="" target="_blank">was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive</a>."</p></body></html> Environment 2016 Elections Climate Change Climate Desk Donald Trump Wed, 18 May 2016 00:26:26 +0000 Tim McDonnell 304286 at Watch Us Do This Really Simple Science Experiment That Proves Donald Trump Wrong <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p><iframe allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="354" src="" width="630"></iframe></p> <p>Climate change can be a hard thing to wrap your head around. It's really scary! The Earth is really complicated! There are a lot of numbers!</p> <p>But if you want to know whether global warming is real, there's really only one thing you need to know: Does carbon dioxide trap heat in the atmosphere? Scientists have known the answer (yes) since at least 1895, when the <a href="" target="_blank">Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius</a> did the first research on what came to be know as greenhouse gases. Some climate change questions are hard, like how to predict the movement of clouds in computer models. But the basic existence of the greenhouse effect is very straightforward and noncontroversial. Among scientists, that is. <a href="" target="_blank">Donald Trump</a> and some other <a href="" target="_blank">prominent Republican politicians</a> are still struggling.</p> <p>In fact, the greenhouse effect is so basic that you can even prove its existence with a simple DIY experiment. We got the idea from the great science communicator Bill Nye, who talked about it when <a href="" target="_blank">he appeared on a recent episode of our <em>Inquiring Minds </em>podcast</a>. We decided to give it a try, and it worked&hellip;barely. We're not scientists, okay?</p> <p><iframe scrolling="no" src="" style="width: 100%; height: 200px; border: 0 none;"></iframe></p></body></html> Environment Video Climate Change Climate Desk Donald Trump Science Top Stories Fri, 13 May 2016 10:00:12 +0000 Tim McDonnell 303931 at Obama Just Cracked Down on Pollution From Fracking <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p>The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday released the <a href="" target="_blank">final version</a> of new federal rules intended to curb emissions of a powerful greenhouse gas. Methane, which is the main component of natural gas, had previously been unregulated. There's a mounting pile of evidence suggesting that as the United States relies increasingly on gas to produce electricity, methane emissions are <a href="" target="_blank">much higher</a> than most people expected them to be.</p> <p>That's a problem for the fight against climate change. Methane emissions are far lower than carbon dioxide emissions, and methane survives in the atmosphere for a relatively short period of time. But methane is far more effective at trapping heat than CO2 is, which makes it a significant near-term warming threat. As I <a href="" target="_blank">reported in a deep dive on methane</a> yesterday:</p> <blockquote> <p>When unburned methane leaks into the atmosphere, it can help cause dramatic warming in a relatively short period of time. Methane emissions have long been a missing piece in the country's patchwork climate policy&hellip;The natural gas system produces methane emissions at nearly every step of the process, from the well itself to the pipe that carries gas into your home. Around two-thirds of those emissions are "intentional," meaning they occur during normal use of equipment. For example, some pneumatic gauges use the pressure of natural gas to flip on or off and emit tiny puffs of methane when they do so. The other one-third comes from so-called "fugitive" emissions, a.k.a. leaks, that happen when a piece of equipment cracks or otherwise fails.</p> </blockquote> <p>The lack of regulations on methane was one reason why President Barack Obama's climate strategy, which hinges on swapping the country's coal consumption for natural gas, has been frowned upon by some environmentalists. Even today's regulations are <a href="" target="_blank">only a partial solution</a>, since they only apply to new and modified natural gas infrastructure, not systems that already exist. And by some analysts' reckoning, more than 70 percent of gas-sector methane emissions from now until 2025 will come from sources that already exist.</p> <p>Still, the regulation announced today achieves one of the final remaining big items on Obama's climate checklist. It aims to reduce gas-sector methane emissions 40 to 45 percent below 2012 levels by 2025 by tightening the allowed emissions from pumps, compressors, wells, and other infrastructure; requiring more frequent surveys for leaks; and implementing a data-gathering survey that will give officials and companies a better understanding of just how much methane leakage there really is. The EPA expects the regulations to cost $530 million by 2025 but to produce $690 million in environmental benefits.</p></body></html> Environment Climate Change Climate Desk Energy Infrastructure Thu, 12 May 2016 15:39:39 +0000 Tim McDonnell 303891 at Environmentalists Hate Fracking. Are They Right? <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p>What if President Barack Obama's biggest achievement on climate change was actually a total failure?</p> <p>That's the central argument of a <a href="" target="_blank">recent story in the<em> Nation</em></a><em> </em>by Bill McKibben, a journalist and environmental activist. "If you get the chemistry wrong," McKibben writes, "it doesn't matter how many landmark climate agreements you sign or how many speeches you give. And it appears the United States may have gotten the chemistry wrong. Really wrong."</p> <p>McKibben's criticism is all about fracking, the controversial oil and gas drilling technique that involves blasting underground shale formations with high-pressure water, sand, and chemicals. (He made a <a href="" target="_blank">similar case here</a> in <em>Mother Jones</em> in September 2014.) Over the last decade, we've witnessed <a href="" target="_blank">much-celebrated strides</a> in solar and other renewable sources of electricity. But by far the most significant change in America's energy landscape has been a major shift from coal to natural gas. The trend was already underway when Obama took office, but it reached a tipping point during his administration. In March, federal energy analysts <a href="" target="_blank">reported</a> that 2016 will be the first year in history in which natural gas provides a greater share of American electricity than coal does:</p> <div class="inline inline-center" style="display: table; width: 1%"><img alt="" class="image" src="/files/gen-new.jpg"><div class="caption">EIA</div> </div> <p>Across the country, many coal-fired power plants are being refitted to burn natural gas, or closing entirely and being replaced by new natural gas plants. This transformation is being driven in part by simple economics: America's fracking boom has led to a glut of low-cost natural gas that is increasingly able to undersell coal. It's also driven by regulation: In its campaign to address climate change, the Obama administration has focused mostly on reducing emissions of carbon dioxide, the most prominent greenhouse gas. Coal-fired power plants are the country's No. 1 source of CO2 emissions. When natural gas is burned, it emits about <a href=";t=11" target="_blank">half as much CO2</a> per unit of energy. So gas, in the administration's view, can serve as a "bridge" to a cleaner future by allowing for deep cuts in coal consumption while renewables catch up.</p> <p>So far, that appears to be working. A federal <a href="" target="_blank">analysis</a> released this week shows that energy-related CO2 emissions (which includes electricity, transportation, and gas used in buildings) are at their lowest point in a decade, largely "because of the decreased use of coal and the increased use of natural gas for electricity generation":</p> <div class="inline inline-center" style="display: table; width: 1%"><img alt="" class="image" src="/files/energy-CO2_0.jpg"><div class="caption">EIA</div> </div> <p>But for many environmentalists, including McKibben and;the organization he co-founded&mdash;Obama's "bridge" theory is bunk. That's because it ignores methane, another potent greenhouse gas that is the main component of natural gas. When unburned methane leaks into the atmosphere, it can help cause dramatic warming in a relatively short period of time. Methane emissions have long been a missing piece in the country's patchwork climate policy; this week<strong> </strong>the Obama administration is expected to roll out the first regulations intended to address the problem. But the new regulations will apply only to new infrastructure, not the sprawling gas network that already exists. So is fracking really just a bridge to nowhere?<br> &nbsp;</p> <h3 class="subhed"><strong>what is methane, anyway?</strong></h3> <p>For Obama's bridge strategy to succeed, it would need to result in greenhouse gas emissions that are in line with the global warming limit enshrined in the Paris Agreement: "well below" 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. So let's start with the gas itself.</p> <p><a href="" target="_blank">According to the Environmental Protection Agency</a>, methane accounted for about 11.5 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions in 2014 (the rest was mostly CO2, plus a little bit of nitrous oxide and <a href="" target="_blank">hydrofluorocarbons</a>). Roughly one-fifth of that methane came from natural gas systems (the No. 3 source after landfill emissions and cow farts and burps). Even with the fracking boom, methane emissions from natural gas have held at about the same level for the last five years, and they are actually down considerably from a decade ago (assuming you trust the EPA stats; more on that later). By volume, they're at about the same level as CO2 emissions from jet fuel&mdash;in other words, a significant source, but an order of magnitude less than CO2 from power plants or cars.&nbsp;</p> <p>But the tricky thing about greenhouse gases is that volume isn't necessarily the main concern. Because of their molecular shape, different gases are more or less effective at trapping heat. To compare gases, scientists use a metric called "global warming potential," which measures how much heat a certain volume of a gas traps over a given stretch of time, typically 100 years. There's considerable debate among scientists about how the global warming potential of methane compares with that of CO2. The EPA says methane is <a href="" target="_blank">25 times</a> as potent as CO2 over 100 years. McKibben cites a Cornell University researcher who says a more relevant figure for methane "is between 86 and 105 times the potency of CO2 over the next decade or two."</p> <p>It's hard to make an apples-to-apples comparison because the two gases have different life spans. CO2 can last in the atmosphere for thousands of years, whereas methane lasts only for a couple of decades<strong> </strong>(after which it degrades into CO2). Global warming potential is also an imperfect comparison metric because it leaves out other kinds of impacts besides trapping heat, said Drew Shindell, a climatologist at Duke University. Atmospheric methane also creates ozone, for example, which is dangerous for the health of plants and humans. By Shindell's reckoning, including all their impacts, each ton of methane kept out of the atmosphere is equal to 100 tons of prevented CO2 in the near term, and 40 tons of CO2 in the long term.</p> <p>The timescale is key, said Johan Kuylenstierna, policy director of the Stockholm Environment Institute. Methane has a more immediate effect on global temperature, he explained, so over the next decade or two, reducing methane emissions could be a way to stave off the immediate impacts of global warming.</p> <p>"If we reduce the rate of near-term warming, we can reduce the impact to habitat shifts in species,"&nbsp; Kuylenstierna said. "We can buy time for vulnerable communities to adapt. We can reduce the rate of glaciers' melting in the Arctic."</p> <p>But in terms of limiting permanent, long-term damage to the climate, and achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement, "the only way to do that is to address CO2," he said.</p> <p>That was the key finding of a 2014 <a href="" target="_blank">study</a> by University of Chicago geophysicist Ray Pierrehumbert, which concluded that "there is little to be gained by implementing [methane and other short-lived climate pollutant] mitigation before stringent carbon dioxide controls are in place." Pierrehumbert and his colleagues repeated that conclusion in a <a href="" target="_blank">new study</a> this month, finding that by mid-century, if CO2 emissions aren't under control, the short-term warming caused by methane will be irrelevant. In other words, at the end of the day, CO2 is still enemy No. 1.</p> <p>With that said, there's widespread agreement among scientists that ultimately, the only solution to climate change is to stop emitting <em>all</em> greenhouse gases. So at a certain point, the methane versus CO2 debate becomes less scientific and more of a value judgment: How much short-term climate damage are we willing to tolerate in exchange for reducing the emissions that are more damaging over the long term?</p> <p>Meanwhile, there's another problem. Debating the relative dangers of methane versus CO2 is of limited value unless you know how much methane the natural gas industry is really emitting. And figuring that out is harder than it sounds.<br> &nbsp;</p> <h3 class="subhed"><strong>Measuring the methane</strong></h3> <p>The natural gas system produces methane emissions at nearly every step of the process, from the well itself to the pipe that carries gas into your home. Around two-thirds of those emissions are "intentional," meaning they occur during normal use of equipment. For example, some pneumatic gauges use the pressure of natural gas to flip on or off and emit tiny puffs of methane when they do so. The other one-third comes from so-called "fugitive" emissions, a.k.a. leaks, that happen when a piece of equipment cracks or otherwise fails.</p> <p>Since natural gas companies aren't legally obligated to measure and report their methane emissions, scientists and the EPA have to make a lot of educated guesses to come up with a total. The inadequacies of the EPA's official measurements were made clear in February, when the agency released estimates for methane from the oil and gas industry <a href="" target="_blank">that were radically higher</a>&mdash;about 27 percent higher&mdash;than had been previously reported. That difference, according to the Environmental Defense Fund, represents a 20-year climate impact equal to 200 coal-fired power plants. The revision resulted from improved metrics showing how much natural gas infrastructure there really is and how much methane is being emitted from each piece of it. The EPA had been systematically low-balling both of those figures for years.</p> <p>Other evidence has piled up to suggest that methane emissions are higher than the EPA previously estimated. EDF <a href="" target="_blank">surveyed</a> more than a dozen peer-reviewed studies of methane emissions from specific fracking sites in Texas, Colorado, and elsewhere; almost all of these studies found that emissions levels were higher than had been previously reported. McKibben leads his story with a <a href="" target="_blank">new study from Harvard</a> that concluded that methane emissions have increased more than 30 percent over the last decade. That's a big departure from the EPA's analysis, which suggests there was no significant increase over that time period.</p> <p>However, the Harvard paper includes a major caveat: The authors admit they "cannot readily attribute [the methane increase] to any specific source type." In other words, there's no evidence the increase is from fracking any more than from agricultural or waste sources. Either way, it's clear that methane emissions from the gas system are higher than most people thought, and certainly higher than they should be if fighting climate change is the end goal. Even EPA chief Gina McCarthy admitted in February that there was "a big discrepancy" between the administration's original understanding of gas-related methane emissions and what new studies are revealing.</p> <div class="inline inline-center" style="display: table; width: 1%"><img alt="" class="image" src="/files/gas-well.jpg"><div class="caption"><strong>A natural gas well in Colorado </strong>Brennan Linsley/AP</div> </div> <p>It turns out that measuring methane leakage from gas systems, whether intentional or accidental, is difficult and often inexact. Hand-held infrared detectors work for doing spot checks, but they're labor-intensive and not very useful if the leak is in an underground pipe. Aerial surveys give a better picture of overall emissions but, again, can't easily locate specific leaks, as illustrated in <a href="" target="_blank">this graphic from MIT</a>.</p> <p>The good news is that increased public concern about methane has pushed the gas industry to adopt better emission detection methods, said Ramon Alvarez, a senior scientist at the EDF. These include drive-by detectors that are more precise and better calibrated to account for weather conditions that make it hard to pinpoint emissions sources (i.e., wind blowing methane away from where it originated).</p> <p>"The methods are improving," he said. "Some of these mobile surveys with new instruments are on the cusp of becoming accepted practice, and regulators are considering requiring those things."<br> &nbsp;</p> <h3 class="subhed"><strong>So can we fix the leaks?</strong></h3> <p>A key difference between CO2 emissions from coal plants and methane emissions from the gas system is that the latter are much easier to reduce. In other words, many of the leaks can be fixed fairly easily and cost-effectively. That's a crucial advantage over coal: Capturing CO2 emissions from coal plants has proved to be <a href="" target="_blank">massively expensive and not very effective</a>. There are no operational "carbon capture and sequestration" coal plants in the United States; <a href="" target="_blank">one of the two</a> under construction is <a href="" target="_blank">billions of dollars over budget</a> before even being switched on.</p> <p>A 2014 <a href="" target="_blank">study</a> commissioned by EDF found that using existing technology, systemwide methane emissions could be reduced by 40 percent at a cost to industry of less than a penny per thousand cubic feet (Mcf) of natural gas. (A typical new fracked shale gas well <a href="" target="_blank">produces about 2,700 Mcf</a> of gas per day.) Some repairs are easier than others. McKibben warns about the difficulty of fixing cement casings on wells themselves. Pipelines, too, are vexing. According <a href="" target="_blank">to the EPA</a>, there are about 21 miles of plastic gas pipelines in the United States for every mile of old cast iron pipes. But cast iron pipes leak so much&mdash;24 times the emissions of plastic pipes&mdash;that their cumulative emissions are actually higher than those of plastic pipes. Replacing cast iron with plastic is a no-brainer technologically, but it's very expensive and slow.</p> <p>But wells account for only about <a href="" target="_blank">5 percent</a> of gas system methane emissions; pipelines account for only 2 percent. Other sources could be much easier to control. The single biggest source, leaks from<strong> </strong>compressors, can be greatly reduced simply by replacing a few functional parts more frequently than the current industry standard. The second-biggest source, leaks from pneumatic gauges, can be fixed by running them on electricity&mdash;possibly from a few small, well-placed solar panels&mdash;instead of gas pressure.</p> <p>Altogether, including the value of saved gas that would otherwise leak, the 40 percent reduction projected by EDF would save the industry and gas consumers $100 million per year, the study found&mdash;not even counting the climate benefits. &nbsp;</p> <p>So why aren't gas companies pursuing these measures more aggressively? Hemant Mallya, an oil and gas specialist with the market research firm ICF International, who authored the EDF report, pointed to a number of factors. Costs for various fixes can vary widely between sites. There may be efforts by companies that <em>own</em> gas infrastructure to shift the responsibility to different companies that <em>operate and maintain</em> it, or vice versa. Even the most cost-effective measures require up-front investment, which could be too high a bar for companies with competing financial needs. But perhaps most importantly, because methane emissions aren't currently regulated, companies simply don't have to do anything about them. Why spend money fixing a problem you aren't required to fix?</p> <p>"Any voluntary measure capital needs will receive lower priority compared to projects necessary to drive the business," Mallya said.</p> <p>That calculus could change soon: This week, the EPA is expected to finalize <a href="" target="_blank">regulations on methane emissions</a> that aim to reduce leaks from new gas infrastructure 40 to 45 percent by 2025. The new rules are only a tiny piece of the full solution since, by EDF's reckoning, more than 70 percent of gas-sector methane emissions from now until 2025 will come from sources that already exist. In March, Obama made a joint promise with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to implement regulations on methane at existing sources, but it's unlikely those will be finalized before Obama leaves office. So it will be up to the next president to follow through&mdash;or not. Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have <a href="" target="_blank">promised to strengthen methane regulations.</a> Donald Trump has been mum, but given that he thinks <a href="" target="_blank">climate change is a hoax</a> and wants to <a href="" target="_blank">dismantle the "Department of Environmental,"</a> it's safe to say methane emission regulations will probably not rank among his top priorities.</p> <h3 class="subhed"><br><strong>Lock-in </strong></h3> <p>Regardless of what happens with methane emissions, there's one other reason to be concerned about Obama's idea of a natural gas "bridge." In particular, will a buildup of gas infrastructure force the country to keep using fossil fuels long after we need to get off them almost entirely?</p> <p>As part of the international climate agreement finalized in Paris in December, <a href="" target="_blank">Obama promised that the United States</a> will reduce its total greenhouse gas emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. But to stay within the Paris-mandated global warming limit&mdash;"well below" 2 degrees C (3.6 F)&mdash;emissions will have to drop much lower than that. A consortium of scientists called the <a href="" target="_blank">US Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project </a>has found that for the United States, the 2C target means reducing emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, a massive, societywide shift from where we are now. Needless to say, a core aspect of the group's recommended strategy is to reduce fossil fuel use as much as possible, as quickly as possible.</p> <p>Even if we managed to eliminate methane emissions and leaks from the natural gas system, gas power plants will still emit carbon dioxide&mdash;less CO2 than coal-fired plants, but a significant amount nonetheless. And the longer we continue sinking money into new fossil fuel infrastructure, the more challenging the transition to clean energy becomes. That's because power plants have life spans of several decades, as they slowly repay their massive upfront costs to investors. A new <a href="" target="_blank">report</a> from the University of California-Berkeley finds that, on average, a gas plant built today&mdash;and, remember, Obama's Clean Power Plan hinges on the construction of more natural gas plants&mdash;will stay in operation until 2057. Each passing year in which new gas plants are built pushes that date back.</p> <p>The consequence of this so-called "lock-in effect" could be that renewable energy stays shut out of the electricity mix, instead of gradually filling the gap left by the decline in coal. A 2014 market forecast <a href="" target="_blank">study</a> led by UC-Irvine projected that with a high supply of natural gas, renewables <strong> </strong>will produce just 26 percent of US electricity in 2050; with a lower gas supply, the share of renewables increases to 37 percent. The upshot, according to the study, is that increased reliance on gas results in very little reduction in overall greenhouse gas emissions over the next few decades. The study found a similar outcome even when the methane leakage rate was assumed to be zero.</p> <p>This would create a situation in which the United States either blows past its climate targets, has to somehow forcibly shut down gas plants before their planned expiration date, or hopes that renewables will get cheap enough to out-compete gas on their own&mdash;not exactly a savory choice for politicians and investors. But the UC-Irvine study based its forecast on the assumption that existing policies would remain unchanged:<strong> </strong>no regulation of methane emissions<strong> </strong>(a situation that, as of this week, will likely change), and no new incentives at the federal, state, or local levels for renewable energy, etc. In other words,<strong> </strong>there was no exit ramp from the "bridge." Once again, it will be up to the next president and Congress to design that exit ramp&mdash;or not.<br> &nbsp;</p> <h3 class="subhed"><strong>Other benefits of coal-to-gas transition</strong></h3> <p>All forms of energy production come with environmental side effects that have nothing to do with climate change. And while EPA scientists concluded last year that fracking <a href="" target="_blank">has not led to</a> "widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water," individual cases of <a href="" target="_blank">contamination continue to occur</a>. The evidence that underground wastewater disposal from frack sites can lead to earthquakes <a href="" target="_blank">gets stronger all the time</a>.</p> <p>Of course, anyone who has <a href="" target="_blank">seen Appalachia's mountaintop-removal coal mining</a> knows that coal comes with no shortage of its own devastating impacts. Ash from coal-fired power plants, loaded with arsenic and other toxic substances, <a href="" target="_blank">causes a wide array of severe or fatal illnesses</a>. Coal mining <a href="" target="_blank">remains an extremely dangerous profession</a>. And burning coal is incredibly hazardous to nearby communities.<strong> </strong>A 2010 <a href="" target="_blank">study</a> by California's Clean Air Task Force directly blamed coal-fired power plants for 13,200 deaths, 9,700 hospitalizations, and 20,000 heart attacks in the United States in that year alone. <a href="" target="_blank">Flaming tap water</a> near frack sites<strong> </strong>notwithstanding, the public health impacts of coal consumption are clearly far worse than those caused by gas.</p> <p>A 2013 <a href="" target="_blank">report</a> by the Breakthrough Institute does a nice job comparing coal and gas on a variety of nonclimate metrics:</p> <div class="inline inline-center" style="display: table; width: 1%"><img alt="" class="image" src="/files/Screen%20Shot%202016-04-12%20at%2012.10.26%20PM.png"><div class="caption">Breakthrough Institute</div> </div> <p>Even if you think natural gas might be a foolish choice when it comes to greenhouse emissions, the picture changes considerably when you look at the full public health impacts of coal production. In a 2015 study, Duke's Shindell<strong> </strong>used an economic analysis to put a dollar value on the cumulative impacts&mdash;climate, health, etc.&mdash;of coal and gas. He found that the cost to society of burning coal was 14 to 34 cents per kilowatt-hour; for gas it was 4 to 18 cents.</p> <p>How does this all add up? For people who live near fossil fuel extraction sites or the power plants where fossil fuels are burned, the answer is pretty obvious: From a public health perspective, Obama's gas "bridge"<strong> </strong>benefits coal-impacted communities at the expense of fracking-impacted communities. But from a local employment perspective, the opposite is true. From a climate perspective, a rapid transition off coal has clear long-term benefits, even if there are short-term impacts from methane. Greenhouse gas emissions from gas are probably much easier to mitigate than emissions from coal, meaning that the kinds of regulations already being drafted by EPA could go a long way toward improving gas' stature as a climate solution.</p> <p>So, is fracking really worse than coal? That claim seems highly dubious, given the myriad significant benefits of reducing coal consumption and lowering CO2 emissions. But at least from the climate change perspective, if natural gas is the end of the road, the transition may be a wash: Ultimately, the only thing that really matters is getting as much renewable energy as possible as quickly as possible. So the "bridge" only makes sense if we have a way to get off it&mdash;and so far, that road map is unclear. The debate between fracking and coal too often misses the forest for the trees, according to Shindell. "We really have to target both," he said. "If we start trading one against the other, we don't really get anywhere."</p> <p>Kuylenstierna agreed: "The only way you get anywhere near 1.5 degrees C is by doing <em>everything</em>."</p></body></html> Environment Charts Climate Change Climate Desk Energy Science Top Stories Infrastructure Wed, 11 May 2016 10:00:13 +0000 Tim McDonnell 300721 at Watch John Oliver Dismantle the Stupid Way the Media Covers Every Scientific Study <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p><iframe allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="354" src="" width="630"></iframe></p> <p>Does <a href="" target="_blank">coffee cause cancer&mdash;or help prevent it</a>? What about <a href="" target="_blank">red wine</a>? These are some of the vital questions that scientists have long struggled to answer, with journalists by their side to misreport the findings.&nbsp;</p> <p>For the media, scientific studies can be a great source of stories: Someone else does all the work on reaching a conclusion that appears to directly affect something your audience cares about (often their health). What's more, that conclusion comes with a shiny gloss of indisputable factuality: "This isn't just some made-up nonsense&mdash;it's science! It must be true." We've all seen how scientific conclusions that were carefully vetted by other scientists can be reduced or distorted beyond recognition for the sake of TV ratings or story clicks. I'm sure I've done it myself.</p> <p>The systemic failure of science communication by mass media is the topic of John Oliver's latest diatribe, and he really nails it. There are a variety of problems all mashed together:</p> <ol><li>Journalists often don't take the time, or have the skills, to actually read through, comprehend, and translate scientific findings that can be very technical. After all, scientific papers are written for other scientists, not for the general public, so it takes a certain amount of training and effort to unpack what they mean. But that's, like, hard and boring, and it's not as if your audience will know any better if you screw it up.<br> &nbsp;</li> <li>Journalists like big, bold conclusions: "X Thing Cures Cancer!" Scientists don't work like that. Most peer-reviewed papers focus on very narrow problems and wade far into the weeds of complicated scientific debates. That doesn't mean studies are all too esoteric to be be useful (although some undoubtedly are). It means that scientists draw their overarching conclusions about the universe based on a broad reading of entire bodies of literature, not individual studies. Single studies rarely yield revolutions; instead, our understanding evolves slowly through tedious, piecemeal work. Scientists want to understand the forest; journalists often just want to show you, dear reader, this one REALLY AWESOME IMPORTANT tree they just found. Those conflicting interests can lead to misleading reporting.<br> &nbsp;</li> <li>Not all studies are created equal; some contain a variety of inadequacies that should give you pause about the conclusions. But journalists often do a poor job of reporting on these inadequacies, either because they don't do enough reporting to know the&nbsp;inadequacies exist or because reporting them would undermine the big, bold conclusion the reporter wants to tell you about. Some studies have extremely small samples sizes. Some relied on rats or monkeys or whatever, but the journalist doesn't explain that the conclusion might not be the same for humans. Actual studies that were published in peer-reviewed journals are often given equal air time to "studies" that some activist/lobbying group/bozo in his garage threw together. Some studies lack important context or conflict with preexisting science&mdash;something that journalists often fail to point out.</li> </ol><p>All these failures lead to confusion and erode the public's trust in scientists. As Oliver points out, bad reporting about scientific research on the health effects of smoking was a major tool of the tobacco industry in its fight against smoking regulations. The same kind of thing happens all the time now with climate change research. See, for example, the so-called <a href="" target="_blank">global warming "hiatus."</a> Over the last couple of years there has been a healthy debate in the scientific community about whether global warming slowed down over the last decade, and if so, why. In part because of sloppy reporting, the debate was misrepresented by climate change deniers as evidence that global warming doesn't exist at all&mdash;which was never what climate scientists were arguing. (That debate is ongoing; <em>Scientific American</em> has a <a href="" target="_blank">good update on the latest</a>.)</p> <p>The important thing to remember is that any one individual study isn't worth very much and can never really "prove" anything. It's not as if Charles Darwin wrote one study about evolution and rested his case at that. It took years of additional research by other scientists to validate his theory. In fact, as Oliver notes, the intense public pressure for scientists to come up with big, bold discoveries actually undermines a very important step in the scientific method: reproducing the results of other scientists. Replicating someone else's study is a good way to find out if the original was a fluke or a genuine finding. Recall the scandal from the fall when <a href="" target="_blank">dozens of psychology papers were found to fail a reproducibility test</a>, thus casting serious doubt on their conclusions. That kind of fact-checking doesn't happen enough&mdash;a trend some observers have called a <a href="" target="_blank">"crisis of credibility"</a>.</p> <p>As a general rule (one that I'm sure to have broken as much as anyone), journalists should avoid making too big a stink about individual studies, at least without serving them with a very large grain of salt. Kudos to Oliver for reminding us why that's important.&nbsp;</p></body></html> Environment Video Climate Change Climate Desk Film and TV Science Mon, 09 May 2016 16:27:34 +0000 Tim McDonnell 303576 at